A federal sex trafficking trial got under way this week, revealing an unforgiving and dark side of the Keys most are fortunate enough never to see.
Testimony given by a now-16-year-old girl, a former resident at the Florida Keys Children's Shelter on Plantation Key, Wednesday explains how she said she was introduced into a world of prostitution and violence, allegedly, by a man who was tasked with protecting her.
That man, Ricky Atkins, 29, is accused of convincing the girl and her then-16-year-old friend and housemate at the shelter to run away on Aug. 15, 2014, and become prostitutes in Miami-Dade County. Prosecutors say he drove the girls to a Cutler Bay Motel 6, where his alleged associate, Sandra Simon, waited to put them to work having sex with more than a dozen adult men over the course of a few days.
Before getting to the motel, Atkins allegedly took the girls to a house in Homestead to "be tested," meaning to have sex with men. The girl testified she was forced to have sex with three men at the house that night.
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Atkins faces life in prison if convicted of either one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors or two counts of sex trafficking of minors. He pleaded not guilty. Simon pleaded guilty to the same charges and agreed to testify against Atkins for a lighter sentence.
Atkins worked at the Children's Shelter for three years when the alleged crimes occurred. His job was to mentor the facility's at-risk children.
The girl, who is not named because of her age and that she is a likely victim of sexual assault, also told a jury this week that she witnessed a man get shot in the process of an armed robbery in Little Havana.
"I heard a shot. I saw the man fall to the ground, and 8-Ball and his friend told me to get into the car, and I did."
8-Ball is Robert Munoz, 26. The girls were with Munoz and Claudia Gomez, 23, a Homestead stripper, when they were found by police in Sarasota County in late August.
The girls went with Gomez and Munoz on Aug. 20 after having a falling out with Simon. The girl testified Wednesday that before leaving Simon, they had several "prostitution dates" with multiple men at the Motel 6 and Simon would collect the proceeds and give the money to Atkins when he visited the motel.
She said she also intended to be a prostitute while traveling with Gomez and Munoz, but unlike with Atkins and Simon, she and her friend would be allowed to keep the money they were paid.
Their journey with Gomez and Munoz ended the night of Aug. 24 after the couple got into a road-rage incident and crashed into a car driven by a woman who they accused of cutting them off. The girls got out of the car and ran to a Walgreens drug store "because we didn't want to be prostitutes anymore. We were done."
It's not clear after searching court records if Munoz was ever arrested or charged in relation to the shooting, which happened in Miami-Dade County some time between Aug. 20 and 24, 2014.
For the road-rage crash, Gomez initially faced two counts each of aggravated battery and child abuse, one count of driving with a suspended license and a charge of driving under the influence. Only the latter two charges stuck.
Munoz was arrested on two felony counts of aggravated battery and two child abuse counts. All four counts were dismissed Sept. 26, 2014, in Sarasota County.
During a break in the trial Tuesday, Atkins told a U.S. marshal guarding him that Munoz "shot a man and is out running around, and I'm in here."
Atkins' defense attorney Alex Michaels contends the girls ran away without prompting by his client, and they willfully became prostitutes, not out of fear of Atkins. Michaels grilled the girl on the stand after she told Assistant U.S. Attorney Elina A. Rubin-Smith that she "was attracted" to Atkins while she lived at the shelter and willfully engaged in oral sex with him one night after he caught her running away.
"You did this on your own because you're a sweet, innocent girl from Iowa," Michaels said, mocking the girl for earlier telling Rubin-Smith that she went "from being a sweet little girl for the most part to being a prostitute, and that's a lot to take in." She lived in Iowa before coming to the Keys with her mother and stepfather.
She said she was regularly beaten by her mother, at the encouragement of her stepfather, and that's how she ended up at the shelter.
When the girls were taken back to the shelter, they waited for a few days before telling police Atkins took them to Dade. The girl testified that she hesitated because she knew Atkins was close to his children and she didn't want him to lose them.
"That's one thing he always talked about, how important his kids were to him," the girl said.
The trial is scheduled to continue at the federal courthouse in downtown Miami on Wednesday at 12:45 p.m. in front of Judge Marcia G. Cooke.